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Atenism (or the Amarna heresy) is the monotheistic religion associated above all with the eighteenth dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known under the name he later adopted, Akhenaten. In the 14th century BC it was Egypt's state religion for around 20 years, before a return to the traditional gods so comprehensive that the heretic Pharaohs associated with Atenism were erased from Egyptian records.
1 Atenist revolution
2 Contrast with traditional Egyptian religion
3 Amarna art
4 Decline of Atenism
5 Other Atenism influences
6 Further reading

Atenist revolution

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

The Aten, the god of Atenism, first appears in texts dating to the 12th dynasty, in The Story of Sinuhe. However, he was considered a relatively obscure sun god and without the Atenist period would barely figure in Egyptian history. Although there are indications that the Aten was becoming more important in the eighteenth dynasty period - notably Amenhotep III's naming of his royal barge as Spirit of the Aten - it was Amenhotep IV who introduced the Atenist revolution, in a series of steps culminating in the official instalment of the Aten as the sole god.

Amenhotep IV initially introduced Atenism in Year 4 of his reign, raising the Aten to the status of supreme god, but initially permitting the continued worship of the traditional gods. To emphasise the change, Aten's name was written in the cartouche form normally reserved for Pharaohs, an innovation of Atenism. This religious reformation appears to coincide with the proclamation of a Sed-festival, a sort of royal jubilee intended to reinforce the Pharaoh's divine powers of kingship. Traditionally held in the thirtieth year of the Pharaoh's reign, this is likely to have been a festival in honour of Amenhotep III, who many Egyptologists think had a co-regency with his son Amenhotep IV of two to twelve years.

Year 4 is also believed to mark the beginning of Amenhotep IV's construction of a new capital, Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten), at the site known today as Amarna. In Year 5 of his reign Amenhotep IV officially changed his name to Akhenaten (Glorious Spirit of the Aten) as evidence of his new worship. The date given for the event has been estimated to fall around January 2 of that year. In Year 7 of his reign the capital was moved from Thebes to Akhetaten (near modern Amarna) in the western desert, though construction of the city seems to have continued for two more years. In shifting his court from the traditional ceremonial centres on the east bank of the Nile, Akhenaten was signalling a dramatic transformation in the locus of religious and political power.

The move separated the Pharaoh and his court from the influence of the priesthood and from the traditional centres of worship, but his decree had deeper religious significance too -- the western shore of the Nile was the resting place of the Pharaohs, traditionally associated with death and the afterlife, so this was undoubtedly a powerfully symbolic act. Taken in conjunction with his name change, it is possible that the move to Amarna was also meant as a signal of Akhenaten's symbolic death and rebirth. It may also have coincided with the death of his co-regent and father, Amenhotep III. In addition to constructing a new capital in honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt, including one at Karnak and one at Thebes, close to the old temple of Amun.

In Year 9 Akhenaten strengthened the Atenist regime, declaring the Aten not merely the supreme god but actually the only god, a universal deity, and forbidding worship of all others, including the veneration of idols, even privately in people's homes - an arena the Egyptian state had previously not touched in religious terms. Atenism, like Judaism, was then based on strict unitarian monotheism, the belief in one God. The prayer par excellence in terms of defining God is the Great Hymn to the Aten, "O Sole God beside whom there is none" (compare this to the Judaic Shema Yisrael, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one").

Akhenaten staged the ritual regicide of the old supreme god Amun, and ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt, and of all the old gods. The word for `gods' (plural) was proscribed, and inscriptions have been found in which even the hieroglyph of the word for "mother" has been excised and re-written in alphabetic signs, because it had the same sound in ancient Egyptian as the sound of name of the Theban goddess Mut. Aten's name is also written differently after Year 9, to emphasise the radicalism of the new regime. No longer is the Aten written using the symbol of a rayed solar disc, but instead it is spelt phonetically.

Contrast with traditional Egyptian religion

The impact of Akhenaten's religious reform, albeit introduced in steps, is hard to overstate; it is equivalent perhaps to a new Pope declaring an obscure African deity the supreme God of Catholicism, building a new Vatican City somewhere in Canada, and abolishing all bishops as well as banning the symbol of the Cross, defacing all churches to remove all reference to Jesus, and banning any personal veneration of Jesus. It is a measure both of Pharaoh's great power, and of the extraordinary circumstances of the time that an equally shocking and dramatic transformation was achieved even temporarily, for about twenty years.

The context appears to have been an Egypt hit by catastrophe, seeming abandoned by the old gods: a series of pandemics is known to have occurred throughout the Near East of this period, and some speculate that it could coincide with the eruption of the volcano of Thera, which would have covered much of Egypt in a layer of destructive ash, killing crops and livestock. Certainly, Amenhotep III's construction of over 700 statues to the god of destruction, Set, suggests Atenism as being more than merely the personal whim of Akhenaten, but at least in part a desperate measure on the part of a Pharaoh responsible for the well-being of his kingdom, above all by ensuring a good relationship with the gods.

In this context, Akhenaten carried out a radical program of religious reform which, for a period of about twenty years, largely supplanted the age-old beliefs and practices of the Egyptian state religion, and deposed its religious hierarchy, headed by the powerful priesthood of Amun at Thebes. For fifteen centuries the Egyptians had worshipped and sacrificed to an extended family of gods and goddesses, each of which had its own elaborate system of priests, temples, shrines and rituals. A key feature of these cults was the veneration of images and statues of the gods, which were worshipped in the dark confines of the temples.

The pinnacle of this religious hierarchy was the Pharaoh, who was both king and living god, and the administration of the Egyptian kingdom was thus inextricably bound up with, and largely controlled by, the power and influence of the priests and scribes. Like the abolition of the Russian Orthodox Church in early Communist Russia, Akhenaten's reforms cut away both the philosophical and economic bases of priestly power, abolishing the cults of multiple deities, and with them the large and lucrative industry of sacrifices and tributes that the priests controlled.

Initially, Akhenaten presented Aten to the egyptian people as a variant of the familiar supreme deity Amun-Ra (itself the result of an earlier rise to prominence of the cult of Amun, resulting in Amun becoming merged with the sun god Ra), in an attempt to put his ideas in a familiar religious context. Aten is the name given to the solar disc, whereas the full title of Akhenaten's god was Ra-Horus, who rejoices in the horizon in his name of the light which is in the sun disc. (This is the title of the god as it appears on the numerous stelae which were placed to mark the boundaries of Akhenaten's new capital at Akhetaten.)

However in Year 9 of his reign Akhenaten declared a more radical version of his new religion by declaring Aten not merely the supreme god, but the only god, and that he, Akhenaten, was the only intermediary between the Aten and his people. He even staged the ritual regicide of Amun, and ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt. In contrast to the old gods, Aten appears primarily to have been seen as a loving and protective god, whose primary goal was not to punish and demand allegiance and sacrifice but support his people through his presence. Key features of Atenism included a ban on idols and other images of the Aten, with the exception of a rayed solar disc, in which the rays (commonly depicted ending in hands) appear to represent the unseen spirit of Aten. New temples were constructed, in which the Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight, rather than in dark temple enclosures, as the old gods had been.

Although idols were banned - even in people's homes - these were typically replaced by functionally equivalent representations of Akhenaten and his family venerating the Aten, and receiving the ankh (breath of life) from him. The radicalisation of Year 9 (including spelling Aten phonetically instead of using the rayed solar disc) may be due to a determination on the part of Akhenaten to enforce a probable misconception among the common people that Aten was really a type of sun god like Ra. Instead, the idea was reinforced that such representations were representations above all of concepts - of Aten's universal presence - not of physical beings or things.

The early stage of Atenism appears a kind of henotheism familiar in Egyptian religion, but the later form suggests a proto-monotheism. The idea of Akhenaten as the pioneer of monotheistic religion was promoted by Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis) in his book Moses and Monotheism. A recent suggestion resulting from interpreting particular items of knowledge concerning biblical and Egyptian history (by Ahmed Osman) proposes that Moses and Akhenaten are the same person.

Amarna art

Styles of art that flourished during this short period are markedly different from other Egyptian art, bearing a variety of affectations, from elongated heads to protruding stomachs, exaggerated ugliness and the beauty of Nefertiti. Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family was depicted in a decidedly naturalistic manner, and they are clearly shown displaying affection for each other.

Artistic representations of Akhenaten usually give him a strikingly feminine appearance, with slender limbs, a protruding belly and wide hips. Other leading figures of the Amarna period, both royal and otherwise, are also shown with some of these features, suggesting a possible religious connotation, especially as some sources suggest that private representations of Akhenaten, as opposed to official art, show him as quite normal. However, according to some controversial theories, the strikingly unusual representations may have been due to non-religious factors - Akhenaten may actually been a woman masquerading as a man, which had been known to happen in Egyptian politics once or twice, or he may have been a hermaphrodite or had some other intersex condition. It is also suggested by Bob Brier, in his book "The Murder of Tutankhamen", that the family suffered from Marfan's syndrome, which is known to cause elongated features, and that this may explain Akhenaten's appearance.

Decline of Atenism

Crucial evidence about the latter stages of Akhenaten's reign was furnished by discovery of the so-called Amarna Letters. Believed to have been thrown away by scribes after being transferred to papyrus, the letters comprise a priceless cache of incoming clay message tablets sent from imperial outposts and foreign allies. The letters suggest that Akhenaten was obsessed with his new religion, and that his neglect of matters of state was causing disorder across the massive Egyptian empire. The governors and kings of subject domains wrote to beg for gold, and also complained of being snubbed and cheated. Also discovered were reports that a major plague pandemic was spreading across the ancient Near East. This pandemic appears to have claimed the life of Akhenaten's main wife (Nefertiti) and several of his six daughters, which may have contributed to a declining interest on the part of Akhenaten in governing effectively.

With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded almost immediately fell out of favor. Tutankhaten, who succeeded him at age 8 (with Akhenaten's old vizier, Ay, as regent) changed his name to Tutankhamun in year 3 of his reign (1348 BC or 1331 BC) and abandoned Akhetaten, the city falling into ruin. Temples Akhenaten had built, including the temple at Thebes, were disassembled by his successors Ay and Horemheb, reused as a source of building materials and decorations for their own temples, and inscriptions to Aten defaced.

Finally, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay were excised from the official lists of Pharaohs, which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb. This is thought to be part of an attempt by Horemheb to delete all trace of Atenism and the pharaohs associated with it from the historical record.

Other Atenism influences

Two other significant discoveries have been cited as evidence that Akhenaten's reign had an historical influence on the development of Judaism. The Amarna letters tell of a band of rebels, referred to as the Apiru, who were reported to be wreaking havoc in the empire. This reference has led to speculation that the report may be one of the earliest historical references to the Hebrew tribes.

Further reading

  • Ahmed Osman, Moses and Akhenaten. The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus, (December 2002, Inner Traditions International, Limited) ISBN 1591430046
  • Savitri Devi, Son of the Sun: The Life and Philosophy of Akhnaton, King of Egypt (Supreme Grand Lodge of A.M.O.R.C, 1956)